I think one of the things that most intrigues me about sacred texts is that they never grow stale. You never find the “definitive” interpretation. And wonderful as some interpretation may be, it can stand aside as another one, more pertinent to the moment, comes along. It is perhaps the signal most important thing that believers know, and non-believers can never get. They read sacred text, Bible or Qu’ran, Torah or Upanishads, as they would any other historical text. They read it as does the exegete, trying to suck out every last ounce of meaning from words of old.
But those of us spiritually attuned, know this is but the most basic of understandings to be gleaned from the texts. They are “texts for all seasons” in the most broad definition imaginable. They speak to us as freshly today as they did 1500, 2000, 3000 years ago. Let me give you an example.
Today’s Gospel reading from the RCL is Matthew 15: [10-20] 21-28. This is in the Episcopal Church. The Roman Church only uses 21-28, a pity since a good deal of the importance of the sermon is lost when the two are not combined. I am told that the blocked numbers [10-20] are from the Lectionary used before the revision in 1979. The lesson comes in discerning what value the added verses have on the initial ones.
This all became most interesting to me because of a piece I read last week at In A Godward Direction. And it got me to thinking, as you might suspect. For those of you without a handy bible, let me quote the full passage:
[Jesus called the crowd to him and said to them, "Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles." Then the disciples approached and said to him, "Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?" He answered, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit." But Peter said to him, "Explain this parable to us." Then he said, "are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness and slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile."] Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Tobias Haller thought the latter part a jarring thing, unlike the Jesus we are used to, and indeed, that has always been my feeling about it. I often wondered why Jesus would be so dismissive and cruel. It had always been put to me that this was an example of Jesus’ humanity, and that he like us was subject to being taught new ideas. MMMmmmm, well, okay, I could buy that but it truly never satisfied me. It was simply not in keeping with the Jesus I knew.
Haller suggests that Jesus may have been only pretending this, only using the situation as a teaching moment for his disciples. Haller makes a telling argument in comparing this woman of “great” faith with the disciples, renowned for their “little” faith. Was He, as Haller contends, merely testing his disciples–would they do the typical thing and reject the “other” as, they had on other occasions?
Haller goes on to suggest that the lesson for the church today is similar. Will we go on rejecting as “other” those that are different and oppositional to our regular way of doing things? Tobias Haller is asking, in the shadow of Lambeth, will the church continue to reject the gay and lesbian person, or realize that Jesus message is essentially one of full inclusion?
I thought his remarks were amazingly on point, to use a legal term. I think he captured the essence of the passage as no one I had ever heard before. He made the passage make sense and made it fit with the overall impression one unfailingly gets from the Gospels in regards to the gentle, inclusive, loving Jesus we have all come to see as our Savior.
I did not realize at the time of the reading that I was reading today’s Gospel. So, it was with some surprise that I opened my paper insert this morning in the pew to look over the readings. I looked forward to what Father Bill might have to say on the reading with anticipation. And I think he added even more to my understanding.
Bill explained what the [bracketed] material was, the Lectionary reading before the revision in 1979. As he stated, the new material was added, the story of the Canaanite woman. And he alluded that this was done with some purpose that they fit together. And he proceeded to explain how he saw it.
Bill suggested that the first part, about the Pharisees and the unclean/clean dichotomy was an attempt on the part of Christ to explain that tradition is a good thing, fine in its place, but and it’s a bit but, tradition needs to be examined from time to time. We need to look at it and see, why are we doing this? It may be that we will find good reason to do so. If that is the case, then we have renewed our strength and value in it and can practice it with greater awareness.
But sometimes we may not be able to satisfactorily explain why we do something. We may be left with the dejected response, of “Because we always have.” That is simply not a good answer. And it begs the question of then, should we change, abandon, or add to it? Jesus was saying that the Pharisees lived by a rule that had it’s place, perhaps as a sanitary ritual, but that it has no spiritual significance. He correctly stated that what comes from the heart had the power to defile, not some food item or method of washing or eating it.
Thus when we look at the issue of gay/lesbian marriage, we need to examine our traditions that seemingly are against it in the same way. What was the purpose? What valid scriptural interpretation exists if any? Do any such purposes exist today? What is the purpose[s] of marriage? What was the ministry of Jesus about? Is this a living Gospel?
Quite frankly the willingness of the Anglicans to examine these issues again and again, gives me great hope. The Romans seem forever stuck in a dogma that they feel glues them to a doctrine they may personally wish could be abandoned, but will cause the collapse, they fear, of all moral authority from the top down if they were to do so.
Of course, many in the Roman and Anglican spheres no doubt think that the old position is correct and see dissent on this issue as nothing more than “people attempting to forge a church to fit their secular desires.” But at least in the Episcopal faith, the question seems always able to be brought up and discussed. The Roman church has the pesky propensity to attempt to shut down discussion by threats of excommunication. Thus one of many reasons I left.
It seems the Anglicans have realized a truth that is being lost in some of the more fundamentalist leaning churches and laity. That the Bible is not something written in stone, but is subject to growing interpretation. It is meant to offer us solace in all ages. It is also, we hope, meant to evolve with new meanings as times change. This is not changing the Gospel to serve man, but it is, I would submit God’s intent–the reason it is so difficult of exactitude–that it be a living document, able to guide us to a larger and fuller understanding.
One often questions why God in his infinite wisdom chose 2000 years ago to send Jesus, hardly a time of modern sophistication. Why not wait when we were more mature? Because the message, I submit is capable of growth as we grow. That is a wisdom of God that is so beyond us that we are finding it hard to see. Those that would write the rules in stone are doing exacting what God did not wish I would argue. After all, the thing between your ears is meant to be used. Take some times and think about traditions, your family, church, and countries. Can you give good reasons for them? Or only because we have always done it this way? See what needs to be done, and as Gandhi said, “be the change you wish to see.”